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Repairing Leaky Water Lines

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

How would you go about replacing old copper pipe when much of it is inaccessible? Do you tear up ceilings and floorboards to access the pipes? Or is there another way?

Copper plumbing can develop pinhole leaks over time when the water supply is very acidic. There is no cure for this problem other than installing water treatment equipment to reduce acidity and replacing pipe and fittings that develop leaks.

In many respects, the way we build houses hasn’t changed much in a century or more and one of the most antiquated practices of all is to bury electrical and plumbing lines in walls and ceilings as the house is put together. It makes repairs and alterations very difficult and often very expensive.

Unfortunately, to get at the problem you probably will have to remove some finished walls and ceilings. That’s the bad news.

But there may be a silver lining. Builders tend to group water lines in predictable places, not scattered throughout the house. In a multi-story building, bathrooms are often stacked on top of each other to make it easier for plumbers to run supply and drain lines.

So you should be able to keep repairs localized. And there’s no reason to rush into something like this unless you’re sure you have a problem. Yes, mold or damp spots on walls and ceilings are signs of a problem that you should handle right away. But preventive surgery may not be the answer.

Consider an alternative to copper. If replacing water lines is in the cards, you might be better off with plastic pipes instead of copper. Not only is copper extremely expensive these days but, as you’ve discovered, it’s not bullet-proof.

Many plumbers have switched to a material called PEX, short for cross-linked polyethylene. It’s an extremely tough, flexible piping suitable for both hot and cold water. Because it bends, PEX can be installed quickly without many of the elbows and fittings that would be required with copper, which eliminates some potential leaks. And PEX doesn’t have the same problem with acidic water that copper does.

In time, homeowners may not face this problem. Forward-thinking designers like Tedd Benson of New Hampshire are devising new ways of building houses that keep plumbing and electrical lines easily accessible for the life of the building.

For now, you’re stuck. Ask a plumber to inspect exposed plumbing and hope for the best.


About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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